"Theatre for Young Audiences" is a somewhat complicated term for me. As someone who has been on both sides of that particular theatrical equation, I have always believed that children simply should be able to see good theatre. A great production of an age-appropriate play will entertain the children as well as their parents. Tonight, as I watched the U.S. premiere of The Neverending Story at the NYU's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, I was reminded that this is possible. I watched the production with two sets of eyes, as both the theatre scholar and inner child in me got sucked into the imaginative staging and solid performances.
I have always believed that children are the most honest audiences. They do not have the social graces to fake a reaction, they do not care what the critics say, and they do not believe that a show that they don't understand must be a piece of high art. Roseneath Theatre's company of actors and artists obviously understand this, and so their version of The Neverending Story is a perfect balance of stunning visual displays, clear and concise plot, and engaging performances.
It doesn't hurt that the story is one that I see as particularly relevant today. At the start we are introduced to Bastian, excellently played by Natasha Greenblatt, who loves to read but doesn't see himself as good at much else. When he has the opportunity to get his hands on a book called The Neverending Story, he picks it up and begins to read in the attic of his school. As he reads, we the audience see him as well as the fantasy world that lives in the book. The constant shifting from the frame of the story itself and the reading of the story a la The Princess Bride sends a really powerful message about the importance of imagination and creativity in a world that can seem to fight against such "impractical" things.
Natasha Greenblatt's performance in particular stands out as she brings a book-obsessed boy to life. Her comic timing and simple charm set the tone for the rest of the production. The acting and energy of the company overall is simply a pleasure to watch, which results in performances that fit in with the over-the-top and fantastical set and costumes while still remaining grounded and relatable. I was completely taken in and gladly gave myself over to their storytelling.
I also have to say that the set and costumes are works of art. Set designer Glenn Davidson's minimal design consists of two small downstage areas to the left and the right of the acting space which almost form a false proscenium, while the acting space itself is surrounded in the back by a series of white curtains. As the show progresses these strips of white curtain morph and transform all with the assistance of a few poles and some physically expressive actors. I couldn't help but think of these curtains as a visual metaphor for the act of writing, as they became the blank pieces of paper acted upon by the words of a story.
Director and playwright David S. Craig is also an actor this piece, and it is this kind of total commitment and versatility that is evident in all of the performers and the production as a whole. The Neverending Story comes across like your best friend saying "It's a long story" and then telling you an amazing tale. For Roseneath Theatre, a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but I doubt that the others could create a performance like this.